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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of August 22 - 28, 2001


Study shows 
wage gap cause of
worker shortage

"… due to (Blaine County’s) tourism industry, there are a great deal of lower paying service occupation and domestic workers not as common to the rest of Idaho."

Greg Rogers, Idaho Department of Labor analyst

Express Staff Writer

Though wages are higher in Blaine County than in any other county in Idaho, a high cost-of-living here means workers are earning on average $7.86 per hour less than they require, a study by the Idaho Department of Labor states.

The average wage for a large range of occupations in Blaine County is $11.60 per hour, while the "livable wage"—what a family of four needs to survive here without public assistance and with an ability to plan ahead—is $19.46 per hour, the report states.

That so-called "wage gap" between what people earn and what they must spend means families are relying on dual incomes to survive financially, and workers are commuting long distances to where they can afford housing, says Greg Rogers, an Idaho Department of Labor analyst and author of the report.

Rogers began studying the issue last year when business owners in the Wood River Valley called the Department of Labor to find out why they were having trouble attracting applicants for job vacancies, he said.

In the four-page report he released last month, Rogers focused on the cost of living in Blaine County and on the earning ability of workers. The report was part of a larger study of the six-county Magic Valley area. A second report that focuses on labor supply is due out in about a week.

Here’s what Rogers states an average Blaine County family of four needs to spend each month to live somewhere between luxury and poverty:

  • Three-bedroom apartment: $947

  • Groceries: $278

  • Housekeeping supplies: $60

  • Clothing: $100

  • Entertainment: $100

  • Personal care: $75

  • Energy: $140

  • Telephone: $40

  • Gasoline (50 gallons at $1.626): $81

  • Car loan payment: $225

  • Medical: $133

  • Personal Insurance: $270

  • Miscellaneous: $150

  • Savings: $100

To pay for those costs, a family needs to earn $2,699 a month after taxes or $3,374 before taxes, assuming a 20 percent tax rate.

"This is an estimate. It’s not gospel," Rogers said. Data for his "market basket" came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and from his own estimates, he said.

Rogers acknowledged that Blaine County is "somewhat of a problem" to study because its cost of living varies greatly from north to south. Housing values average about $1 million in the Ketchum-Sun Valley area and $250,000 in Hailey and Bellevue, the report finds.

He also noted that Blaine County "features somewhat of a paradox in income levels." In 1999, the county’s per capita income of $41,259 was the highest in Idaho, which had an overall average of $22,871. Blaine County’s average hourly wage is about $2 higher than that of the entire Magic Valley area. "However, due to (Blaine County’s) tourism industry, there are a great deal of lower paying service occupation and domestic workers not as common to the rest of Idaho."

For example, Roger’s list of the 42 most common jobs in Blaine County includes butlers, who earn an average hourly of $12.96; licensed chefs, who earn an average hourly of $13.33, and nannies, who earn an average hourly of $9.18.

Roger’s said his income numbers came from unemployment claims, the Idaho Department of Labor Job Service office in Hailey and about 50 interviews he conducted with employers from Picabo to Sun Valley.

The wage gap along with a forecast unemployment rate of 3 percent in the county "makes it difficult to hire service workers because many workers cannot afford to live in the county and must commute from elsewhere," Rogers said.

To solve the problem, the county will need to provide more affordable housing, and employers may need to offer signing bonuses and better benefits, he said.

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.